Belying expectations of using the much awaited press conference to chart a new course, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spent much of his time and energy defending his Government’s record and fending off questions about corruption and non-performance. He barely touched upon the economy.
As expected, he ruled out a third term for himself and said he would “hand the baton over to a new Prime Minister” after the general elections, in a few months.
Though the Congress party has not made any formal announcement of its Prime Ministerial candidate, Manmohan Singh’s statement has validated speculation about Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s anointment for the top post.
Singh felt that Rahul Gandhi had excellent credentials and said the announcement of his candidature would be made at an appropriate moment. The remark comes at a time, when pressure is mounting on the Congress to name its Prime Ministerial candidate. The party is expected to announce the name on January 17.
Addressing his third press conference in his nine-and-half-year tenure as Prime Minister, Singh attacked the BJP nominee for the post. Referring to the 2002 Gujarat riots, he said Narendra Modi would be a disaster for the country.
Countering the Opposition’s projection of Modi as a strong leader while he himself was portrayed as weak, he said: “If you measure the strength of the Prime Minister by presiding over mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, then I do not believe in it. I do not think that this kind of strength this country needs, least from its Prime Minister.
“I do not believe that I have been a weak Prime Minister... I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media or for that matter the Opposition in Parliament ... Given the political compulsions, I have done the best I could do.”
Dismissing the perception that the Congress was not capable of running a coalition government, he said that his two terms as Prime Minister in UPA-I and UPA-II had displayed the Congress’ ability to run a coalition. He, however, agreed that some compromises were made in the process, on “peripheral issues and not on national problems.”
“Nobody has asked me to step down because of any inadequacy that characterised my tenure as Prime Minister,” was his response when asked about “negative” perceptions within the Congress about his leadership.
Asked about dual power centres in Congress with the Prime Minister and the Party President being different individuals, he said the arrangement of the Party President and the Prime Minister not being the same person had worked exceedingly well.
“I have been able to complete my 10-year term without any hiccups,” he said lauding Sonia Gandhi for her “enormous” help in dealing with complex issues. It is “not a disadvantage or a drawback” if the Congress President or the Vice-President have views that are reflected in the Government decisions, said Singh.
Though the Prime Minister did not speak much about the economy, he admitted that his Government had failed to contain inflation. “This is primarily because food inflation has increased. However, we should remember that those who produce food gain from higher prices. Also, our inclusive policies have put more money in the hands of the weaker sections,” he said.
Indicating that “the worst was behind us”, the Prime Minister said that the cycle of global economic growth is turning for the better. “Many of the steps we have taken to address our domestic constraints are coming into play; India’s growth momentum will revive,” he said.
Corruption, a challenge
Accepting that combating corruption is a challenge, he claimed that several laws have been enacted to make the work of the Government transparent and accountable. “There is much public concern on high-profile allegations of corruption, notably in regard to 2G spectrum allocations, coal block allocations and cases related to land. We have taken major steps to change the existing procedures for allocation of spectrum and coal by shifting to auctions so that these problems do not arise in future,” he said